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Army mission established future of transportation in U.S.

Ned Jilton II • Aug 7, 2019 at 9:30 PM

In August 1919, the United States Army was in the middle of a tough mission. So tough, in fact, that many expected it to fail.

Capt. William C. Greany, who was assigned to the mission, wrote in his report “… Hardship was experienced due to the almost continuous and excessive amount of strenuous work, insufficient rest and sleep, lack of shelter, ration difficulties, lack of bathing facilities and at times the scarcity of even drinking water.

“Other conditions such as alternate extremes of temperature, rain, high winds, excessive dust, sand storms and the rarefied and the extremely dry atmosphere of the arid western region combined to make conditions that only military discipline as administered by the commanding officer could overcome and insure the success of the expedition.”

Things were so tough that when the mission ended on Sept. 6, nine of the Army’s vehicles had been destroyed, and out of the 39 officers and 258 soldiers involved, there had been 21 casualties.

What was this mission that was so difficult and dangerous?

Driving across the United States.

The mission known as the First Transcontinental Motor Convoy started on July 7, only eight months after the end of World War I, and was intended to show off the newly mechanized U.S. Army and attract recruits.

The convoy was made up of 81 vehicles including two machine shops, a water tanker, two gasoline tankers, a searchlight truck and four kitchen trailers, but the two most important were a Militor four-wheel-drive tow truck equipped with a power winch and an artillery tractor, called a caterpillar in some reports. This was an actual tractor with tracks instead of wheels.

After a big ceremony, the convoy rolled out from the Elipse south of the White House in Washington, D.C. The plan was to take the Lincoln Highway across the United States and arrive at the Presidio in San Francisco.

On the second day of the mission, one of trucks had the fan adjustment let go. Another truck had to stop due to brake problems. The Militor had to free a truck stuck in the mud and then tow another one with a disabled magneto to the campsite.

Also on that same day, one of the machine shops struck and damaged a low bridge. It was the first of 88 bridges that would be damaged or destroyed by the convoy as it made its way across the country.

And on this day, the convoy covered a whopping 62 miles in a little more than 10 hours.

The thing you have to remember is that in 1919 the highway system we know today didn’t exist. The Lincoln Highway was among the best cross-country roads in the nation, but it was two lanes and existed only on paper beyond Illinois.

A lieutenant colonel assigned to the mission as an observer wrote, “Through Ohio and Indiana a great portion was paved and macadamized. In Illinois the train started on dirt roads and practically no more pavement was encountered until reaching California.”

State by state, the lieutenant-colonel noted the road conditions. “The dirt roads of Iowa are well graded and are good in dry weather; but would be impossible in wet weather. In Nebraska, the first real sand was encountered and two days were lost in the western part of this state due to bad, sandy roads. Wyoming roads west of Cheyenne are poor dirt. … In western Utah, on the Salt Lake Desert, the road becomes almost impassable to heavy vehicles,” he wrote.

Time and time again the tractor was brought off its trailer to save another truck and keep the convoy moving when the paved roads ended.

On this date, Aug. 7, the convoy was in Nebraska. According to the daily log, it departed Big Springs at 6:30 a.m. One mile from camp, a staff observation car had to stop because the engine was misfiring badly due to a dirty sparkplug.

One of the heavy trucks had trouble five miles west of Dix Station and the motor was found to be hot. The muffler was removed and the truck continued on. Just as the truck pulled into camp, the paulin (the tarpaulin covering the truck), burst into flame. The paulin and some personal effects of the men were destroyed, but the cargo consisting of commissary stores was saved. The body of the truck was slightly scorched.

Despite all the problems, the convoy arrived at the Presidio in San Francisco 62 days after leaving Washington, D.C. It had traveled 3,251 miles, covering 58.1 miles a day at an average speed of six miles per hour.

And what about that lieutenant colonel who was observing the mission?

He would become a general in World War II and would use truck convoys to keep supplies moving from the Normandy beaches to the front in Europe. It would be known as the Red Ball Express.

After the war, as president of the United States, he would build the Interstate Highway System.

That lieutenant colonel was none other than future five-star Gen. and President of the United States Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The Army Signal Corps filmed the convoy, and the footage can be seen on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZJKxkfF1D8.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@timesnews.net.

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